The love of my life died on Friday. It wasn't unexpected. He'd been going downhill for some time. But he was tenacious; a rambunctious black-and-white terrier mix named Oreo. Fifteen years old. He'd hung in there with grace and humor until the very end.
Last week, after he'd vomited a puddle of blood in the dining room, the vet said maybe the new antibiotics are irritating his stomach, let's stop them and then check him in two days. Bring him in on Friday. Normally, I would have beamed myself into his office in a nanosecond but subconsciously I knew what was really happening. So, selfishly, I agreed to wait.
The following day Oreo stopped eating and drinking. He wasn't in pain and seemed to float in and out of consciousness. Later that afternoon, when he could no longer stand, we knew it was time. The whole family was there with him—my husband, daughter and me. We said our goodbyes and then he was gone.
I was inconsolable—my grief guttural, primitive. I howled. I shrieked. A trivial argument with my husband turned into a roaring, physical altercation with broken pottery and shattered glass and ended with us clinging to each other sobbing and me screaming, "I don't want him to be dead."
My heart was broken.
I've lost people I loved before—my mother, father, brother, a beloved uncle, two dear friends—but this was different. I spent the weekend in a fuzzy cocoon of shock. I'd hear the click of his nails on the hardwood floors, the rhythmic licking of his arthritic leg, the tinny sound his dog tags hitting his water bowl as he drank. I combed the backyard for dried stools, any physical evidence of him. There was nothing, nothing except an empty doghouse that I had planned to reroof in the spring.
I put a sweet picture of him engulfed in wildflowers on my laptop; pored through 15 years of family photos of beach trips, mountain hikes, birthday parties, fireside cuddles, puppy catastrophes of half-eaten shoes, broken windows, mauled sofa cushions.
Friends consoled us. You gave him a good life. Look how long he lived. Fifteen is a testament to the love and care you showered on that sweet soul. He's crossed the rainbow bridge and now shines brightly in heaven. I posted adorable pictures of him on Facebook and the outpouring of love from friends and even strangers renewed my battered opinion of people. I answered each and every comment personally, healing a little bit with every "thank you."
On Sunday, over a cup of tea, my husband and I talked about death. I told him that if I could pick someone to come back from the dead, if I had the choice between my mother, father, brother or Oreo, I would choose Oreo. A dog. I would choose a dog over my mother. And I loved my mother. I loved my family. Their deaths left a hole in my life so deep that it will never be filled. There are days, especially during the holidays, where I would sell my soul to have them back for just an hour and they've been gone for 25 years. But human relationships are complex; love given, love revoked, love abused, neglected, tested, stretched. Human love comes with baggage and that baggage is left here when someone we love dies. We can dig through it, maybe chuck a few threadbare items away but that suitcase will never be emptied. But animals have no baggage. They enter our lives pure and unburdened and leave the same way. They love us unconditionally. There, I've said it.
Unconditional love—that hackneyed overused pop psychology buzz phrase, the staple of every self-help book author and new age guru on the planet. God, I hate those two words. Maybe one day I'll find another way to explain how that dog made me feel when I'd open the front door after a hard day at work to find him, tongue hanging out in a big sloppy grin, wiggling, practically jumping out of his skin with happiness at the sight of me, wiggling so hard that sometimes he'd actually fall down.
And I'd find myself—no matter how stressed out or anxious or sad I was— smiling, my heart opening up, the sadness draining from my body replaced by a warmth that reached every cell of my being, and I'd be on my knees, with his paws on my shoulders, his tongue slurping my face, he whining with delight and me cooing, "Who's a good boy, then? Who's a good boy, my sweet, sweet Oreo?"